Lonely? Tech Firms Hope You’ll Use An App for That

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The post-Internet era has ushered in generations of socially awkward adults who’ve long leaned on technology for their social kicks. But as millennials age out of college, many adults have found themselves…well, painfully lonely.

And tech companies have taken note.

Technology titans and fledgling startups alike — including three in San Diego — are all stepping up, each with different ideas about how to get people talking in real life again. But can apps and new tech platforms really help our social angst?

Tech companies have tried in the past, and most have failed to earn our attention. Yet the opportunity to address our collective loneliness persists — and grows year after year.

Technology may have started the problem. Now they’re trying to fix it

Meeting new friends — and then maintaining those friendships as a busy adult — is not a problem unique to younger generations, says Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher at McGill University. It’s something most adults experience after college.

“Once we’re no longer in school, we aren’t surrounded by a group of people who are going through similar life experiences, or perhaps have similar interests or schedules,” Kirmayer said. “As adults, we become busy with work, romance, children, careers, and aging parents. Even if we do have time to meet new people, where can we look?”

Although not a new problem, there’s a good chance the modern lifestyle is contributing to an uptick in social isolation. Social media allows users to keep in touch with friends and family without ever picking up the phone or inviting anyone to dinner. E-commerce takes the small talk out of shopping. Convenience apps like Uber, PostMates, and Instcart allow city dwellers to order groceries, a cab, and dinner without looking anyone in the eye.

Research on loneliness and isolation has shown many adults struggle with forming and maintaining meaningful friendships. A new study conducted by UC San Diego researchers, published last month, found that 3 out of 4 Americans experience “moderate to high levels of loneliness.” Older studies found loneliness rates of 17 percent to 57 percent and that younger generations are among the loneliest of all.

Harvard psychology professor Matthew Lieberman says our need to connect with other humans is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter.

“We’re more connected than ever, but we’re also more alone and isolated than ever,” Kirmayer said. “That’s a problem, because scientific research has shown we benefit from friendship and being socially connected. We used to think that was a luxury, but now we’re realizing it’s essential for health.”

How tech wants to treat — or cure — loneliness

When a widespread problem is unaddressed — and growing in need by the year — companies generally rise up with solutions. And so they have in the loneliness arena.

Some of these new services border on the bizarre, like New York City-based Cuddlist, which sends out “professional cuddlers” to hold, stroke, and embrace lonely people in a nonsexual way for $80 an hour. Then there’s HearMe.app, which allows users to share their thoughts with an attentive stranger (online employees called “listeners”) for $10 a week. Their tagline? “Not everyone needs therapy, but we all need someone to talk to.”

These apps treat symptoms of loneliness, but there’s a wave of tech companies attempting to treat loneliness at its core — by helping people make real in-person, human connections. Some of the bigger players in this space are dating apps that viewed platonic friendships as a secondary market. Users can meet new friends the same way they find new dates: by sharing their interests, ages and lifestyle details online, and letting an algorithm match them with potential friends to meet in person.

But do any of these apps really work?

Failure abounds

The graveyard for meetup and friendship apps is depressingly expansive, indicating the problem is a tough nut to crack. Tinder, a popular dating app best known for facilitating hookups between strangers, launched a friendship feature in 2016 called Tinder Social, which allowed users to organize group meetups with strangers in hopes of linking up with new friends. A year later, that feature was disabled and abandoned.

Tinder said the feature had “modest adoption,” but the idea didn’t “fit cleanly with (their) future direction.” If a feature is successful, it’s rarely abandoned.

Tinder’s rival, Bumble, also launched its friendship feature Bumble BFF in 2016. Instead of coordinating group meetups, Bumble BFF tried to match friends one on one. So far, this one has stuck around.

“We’ve had a lot of user adoption on BFF, especially with women,” said Bumble’s chief brand officer Alex Williamson. However, the company was not willing to share numbers on how many of its users signed up for the friendship feature, or if it’s been as popular as the dating app.

Despite the challenges in this space, new players keep diving in. When it comes to friend-making apps, there’s Hey! VINA for women, Atleto for sports lovers, Meet My Dog for animal lovers, and Cliq, We3, and Squad for those looking to meet up in groups. Here in San Diego, tech startups like Frendli, DoWhop, and Beekn are all trying to get people out in the real world to make new friends.

But none of these apps have reached mass user adoption, like Tinder did with dating or Facebook did for social media. Their staffing remains small, and their app downloads are unimpressive. And all are facing a massive barrier to success.

Why real friendship is difficult for tech to inspire

To be clear, there are many reasons tech companies fail, not the least of which is poor planning when it comes to revenue generation. Founders often succumb to the Field of Dreams fallacy: If you build it, they will come. But most often, users don’t come and apps die when resources dry up.

Setting aside this common mistake, founders of friendship apps have bigger problems to tackle: social stigmas, inadequate algorithms, and — perhaps most troublesome of all — a fundamental misunderstanding of how friendships are formed. Friendship experts say tech founders will likely need to address these hangups if they ever hope to reach mass user adoption.

Shame and embarrassment

Kirmayer, the friendship researcher, also works as a consultant for technology companies building social apps. She said one of the biggest obstacles to apps like Bumble BFF and Frendli is user embarrassment.

“The loneliness people experience stokes an incredible sense of shame,” Kirmayer said. “People are hesitant to put themselves out there and acknowledge the fact that they don’t have many friends.”

Williamson said Bumble is acutely aware of this obstacle, and the company is working to normalize the behavior. They’re posting blogs on topics like friendship and vulnerability, hosting events, and trying to cultivate a community centered on trust and openness. She said online dating faced the same issue in its early days, but that social stigma has faded in recent years thanks to work done by Tinder and Bumble.

Dishonesty

Karen Dobkins, a UC San Diego researcher who studies deep human connection, said existing friendship apps have a major flaw in their design. Users get to create profiles just like dating apps, which means dishonesty can proliferate.

“You edit yourself,” Dobkins said. “You present things you think other people will like, but it’s often a false representation of yourself.”

If users aren’t presenting their real selves, the matching algorithm is dead in the water.

False profiles aside, Dobkins said the matching algorithms are also too simple. Shared interests are not what inspires deep human connection, she said, and filling out profiles with generic questions won’t satisfy users.

“Answering those questions makes us all feel a little depressed,” Dobkins said. “They don’t capture who you are. They capture your preferences.”

Lack of vulnerability

The main appeal of friendship apps (and dating apps for that matter) is that they remove much of the vulnerability that comes with social interactions. Introductions are made for you, and rejections aren’t face-to-face.

But vulnerability is also the key to real human connections, according to Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability and shame. In her book “Daring Greatly,” she writes that “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.”

Dobkins says users of friendship apps might sense a superficiality to the technology, as the apps fail to capture the vulnerability that comes with in-person interactions. And while friendship apps might ease the burden of making new friends, they might also perpetuate social struggle.

“As a society, we might get out of practice experiencing early vulnerability,” Kirmeyer said. “And that’s dangerous. Perhaps you want to approach a fellow mom at a Mom & Tots group, or you’re hoping to date someone you see at a coffee shop. You might not have the social skills to approach them.”

Where do we go from here?

Robert Swisher, the founder of friend-matching app Frendli, said the obstacles facing this field haven’t cowed him. Instead, he sees the struggle as an indicator of a remaining need in the market.

“That’s why I started Frendli,” he said. “I tried a bunch of things, and I didn’t like any of them.”

And Dayton Mills, the founder of the Beekn app for impromptu social meetups, said it’s a waiting game. Younger generations look to technology to solve their problems, and when technology hasn’t solved a big problem… well then it’s only a matter of time.”